One thing is clear: while it has been a slower than usual run-up to the NHL deadline next Monday, the logjam has now been broken. (Where the Leafs fit in, after a 2-1 loss at home against the Sharks, I'll come to in a moment.)
In recent years, some pretty major deals have been consummated well before the “deadline day”. Even though there was some last-day action, a lot of the big stuff had been decided already, leaving various networks with about ten hours to fill- with mainly small deals receiving more analysis than they deserve. But this season, there was almost nothing happening until a few days ago. And it’s been interesting to see how things have slowly built up to Thursday night’s big deal involving the Jackets and Kings.
First we had Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina moving on the heels of the Dominic Moore deal. Interestingly (ironically?), all three ex-Leafs are the kinds of players who always seem to draw attention from “contending” teams at this time of year. Then we progressed to the Downie/Quincey deal involving Detroit, Tampa and Colorado. Not huge names, exactly, but players who can certainly help a good team come playoff time.
Then, it was Vermette heading to Phoenix to help the Coyotes in their playoff drive and you could feel the ante was being raised by the hour. While not a superstar, Vermette is a guy who can really play. He has good skill and possesses traits that Dave Tippett, a demanding coach, should like. The next step was a really big name moving, and that trade saw Jeff Carter go to the Kings in return for Jack Johnson Thursday evening.
Not surprisingly, all kinds of opinions were flying about that particular trade. Some observers love Johnson, the former high number-one pick who has only ever played with the Kings—others less so. Two years ago, most Flyer fans loved Jeff Carter. But then the reports of his off-ice reputation emerged, fair or not. And now the guy with the awful long-term contract (why would anyone ever hand out a 10-year deal…why?) has been dealt twice within a few months. Go figure.
This all leads to this simple question: where, if anywhere, do the Maple Leafs fit into the trade deadline picture over the next 72 hours or so?
Befitting the Leaf "frustrated fan" experience in recent years, every time a player is thought to be even possibly available, we begin to picture him in blue and white. Remember Eric Lindros? By the same he actually signed here, he was well passed his best- and healthiest- days. (In truth, it has maybe almost always been this way in Leafland for most of us, as diehard fans. I’ll speak for myself: some of my fondest memories have been while contemplating (day-dreaming in my school days?) what we didn’t have in our line-up, but wishing and hoping that we could somehow land that big fish. I’m much older now, not necessarily wiser, but certainly older. I don’t spend nearly the time thinking about who might get traded here. Years of disappointment in my youth dulled that hopefulness. I’ve written here in the past about a long list of guys I wanted in the 1970s. We finally got Dan Maloney, for example, a player I really wished we could land in Toronto, but maybe a couple of years to late…)
In the past few weeks alone, this has been the Maple Leaf bouncing ball: Getzlaff, Bobby Ryan, Rick Nash, Jeff Carter. Now the word is, based on comments emanating from the TSN panel last night (and elsewhere, too) that the Kings may move Dustin Brown. Well, he will likely jump to the top of the "want" list that Leaf fans update daily in their minds.
How realistic obtaining Brown is, I have no idea. It may well be that the Leafs have other priorities, such as a shutdown defender or a veteran goalie. I can't follow the bouncing ball very well.
Somehow, and I could be very wrong, I just don’t see the Leafs bringing in a high-end defender. I don’t think Burke wants to give up what would be required to get that kind of player—and this is an organization that is already deepest on the blueline. Whether we have drop-dead, high-end quality there, well, we can debate that. But I think that even if the Leafs didn’t make a single move on the blueline, they could have a very good, young, experienced and mobile defense in two seasons. How good might Schenn be, if he is just allowed to develop like any 22 year-old? Heck, some (most?) defensemen don’t get to the NHL until they are older than Schenn, and the kid has played four seasons already. Gardiner is obviously a keeper, with a huge ceiling. Phaneuf is not going anywhere and for me, Gunnarsson remains an invaluable, reliable presence. That’s four reasonably young but already experienced defensemen and I have not even mentioned Franson or any of the youngsters down on the farm. So a defenseman? I just don’t see it. But who knows?
I will say this: if the Leafs do want to bring in a stud defenseman, or a player like Brown (who indeed has a lot of the traits that Burke, and we as fans, would dearly love), or a goalie like Nabokhov, we would have to give up something pretty good in return. And to me, as much as I don’t like the idea, I keep coming back to a name that I have mentioned in this regard before, and that’s Gunnarsson.
As anyone who visits the site somewhat regularly might know, I’m a Gunnarsson fan. I just like his demeanor on the ice. He makes mistakes, but all defensemen do. He is not wondrous offensively, but if he focused on that more, he has shown that he has solid offensive instincts and nice skills. But on this team, with offensively-gifted guys like Gardiner and Franson—and Phaneuf who loves to join the rush, more often than not. along with Liles—Gunner is the “voice of reason” on the backline. He plays his position quietly and moves the puck to his own teammates with proficiency. He is not the big, physical guy that we would all love, but while he will likely never be Lidstrom, he may be a less-skilled, less impactful version of the smart Detroit defenseman.
So, if I was a rival GM, and I couldn’t pry Gardiner away from Burke, Gunner would be next on my list. And I would ensure that he was part of any deal that sent a really good player to Toronto.
There is one other point I wanted to make on the subject of trades. I’d like to give the person whose comment it was on Twitter credit for the statement (I believe it was Adam @bleafer ) The comment was about Mikhail Grabovski and essentially it was this: like Dominic Moore before him, perhaps Grabbo should keep in mind that some players are in the right spot for them already. I thought it was a well made point. Tempting fate by demanding an absurdly high contract may get you what you actually don’t want—a ticket out of town. It just may be that Grabovski is a guy who is suited to the system Wilson plays, in a market that appreciates him for what he is and is not down on him for what he is not.
As many of you will know, I wasn’t a Grabbo guy two years ago, or event at the beginning of last season. But I have been won over, over the last twelve months. I just wonder if he may get lost in another market, where hockey does not matter much—and players aren’t held to the scrutiny they are here. I think what has made Grabbo a fine player (besides his innate skill and hard work) is that he loves being a Leaf, and a good Leaf, in a market that loves hockey as much as he does. If he was in, say, Carolina, would he be the same player? Maybe. But I do wonder.
In any event, I couldn't begin to predict what Burke will or won’t do between now and Monday. Some moves, maybe no moves? Maybe bring a forward in, or a defenseman- or a goalie? I have no idea. He has claimed that his track record is that he likes to make his big deals well before the deadline, before the price goes up and everyone wants the same guys. I don’t honestly know if his "track record" in his 13 years as a GM (that would require more research than I am prepared to do….) demonstrates that he does in fact usually make his moves early. Regardless, I sense that, this time around, he is not willing to give up assets he has judiciously built up over the past three plus years—even for a player he may really like.
Can he pull off another Phaneuf deal, or something similar to what he managed with the Ducks a year ago? Again, I don’t know. But as Dustin Brown rumors will surely swirl around now, if I had to make a guess, I’d guess he may sit this one out, and, if anything, make only smallish moves.
What do you think?